NEW YORK — Manti Te’o tried to put one of the strangest sports stories in memory behind him, insisting he was the target of an elaborate online hoax in which he fell for a fake woman created by pranksters, then admitting his own lies made the bizarre ordeal worse.
Whether his off-camera interview with ESPN was enough to demonstrate that the Notre Dame star linebacker was a victim in the scheme instead of a participant is still an open question.
The most important judges of the All-American and Heisman Trophy finalist may be pro football teams. Te’o has finished his coursework at Notre Dame and is preparing for the NFL draft at an elite training facility in Florida, where the 2½-hour interview was conducted late Friday night.
ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap said that the 21-year-old Te’o answered all his questions in a calm voice, and tried to clear up the mysteries and inconsistencies of the case.
Among the highlights:
— Te’o denied being in on the hoax. “No. Never,” he said. “I wasn’t faking it. I wasn’t part of this.”
— Te’o provided a timeline and details of his relationship with Lennay Kekua, his virtual sweetheart, who went through an array of medical calamities before “dying” of Leukemia in September, just hours after Te’o got real news of his grandmother’s death.
— He acknowledged that he lied to his father about meeting Kekua in person, then exacerbated the situation after her supposed death when he “tailored” his comments to reporters to make it sound as if their relationship was more than just phone calls and electronic messages.
“I even knew, that it was crazy that I was with somebody that I didn’t meet, and that alone — people find out that this girl who died, I was so invested in, I didn’t meet her, as well,” Te’o said. “So I kind of tailored my stories to have people think that, yeah, he met her before she passed away, so that people wouldn’t think that I was some crazy dude.”
— He detailed the confusing phone conversation he had on Dec. 6, when the woman who was posing as Kekua contacted him and told him one last hard-to-believe story about how she had to fake her own death to evade drug dealers. Te’o said it left him piecing together what exactly was going on over the next few days, when he was bouncing from interview to interview while taking part in the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York on Dec. 8 and another awards dinner in Los Angeles the next night. He mentioned his girlfriend in interviews at least three times over that period.
— Even after he went to his parents, coaches and Notre Dame officials with the story by Dec. 26, and the school provided an investigation that it says corroborated Te’o’s version by Jan. 4, the player told ESPN that it was not until Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old acquaintance who lives in California, contacted him Wednesday and confessed to the prank, that he finally believed Kekua was not real. Schaap said that Te’o showed him direct messages from Twitter in which Tuiasosopo admitted to masterminding the hoax and apologized.
Schaap remarked to Te’o earlier in the interview that he still talked about Lennay as if she existed.
“Well, in my mind I still don’t have answers,” Te’o replied. “I’m still wondering what’s going on, what happened.”
Tuiasosopo has not spoken publicly since Deadspin.com broke the news of the hoax on Wednesday and identified him as being heavily involved. He and his family have declined several requests for comment by The Associated Press.
Whether Tuiasosopo ultimately confirms Te’o’s version of the story will go a long way toward determining where this saga is headed.
In the interview with ESPN, Te’o implied that he was not holding a grudge against Tuiasosopo.
“I hope he learns,” Te’o said. “I hope he understands what he’s done. I don’t wish an ill thing to somebody. I just hope he learns. I think embarrassment is big enough.”
Te’o was the emotional leader and best player on a Notre Dame team that went from unranked to playing for the program’s first national championship since 1988. And Te’o’s tale of inspired play while dealing with a double-dose of tragedy became the theme of the Irish’s unexpected rise and undefeated regular season.
Not until Te’o and the Irish faced Alabama in the BCS championship did the good times end. The Crimson Tide won in a 42-14 rout on Jan. 7, the hoax was then exposed and suddenly the dream season was tarnished.
So far no law enforcement agencies have indicated they are pursuing a criminal case in the scam, and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick in a news conference earlier this week said the university was going to leave it up to Te’o and his family to pursue legal action.
Bennett Kelly, founder of the Internet Law Center in Santa Monica, Calif., said a criminal case of fraud against the perpetrators probably wouldn’t work because it appears they took nothing of value (money or other items) from Te’o. The player said at one point the fake girlfriend asked for his checking account number but he declined.
A civil suit would be difficult as well, Kelley said.
“It’s not as easy as it’s often portrayed,” Kelley said. “The context has to be outrageous. There usually has to be some kind of physical manifestation. It can’t just be that it was a bummer.”
Swarbrick said from the start that it didn’t seem as if laws were broken or NCAA rules violated. He had publicly encouraged Te’o to give his side of the story.
“Manti put this to rest for me and the University long ago,” Swarbrick said in a text message to the AP on Saturday. “I am just glad that everyone (at least everyone open to the facts) now knows what we have long known — that a great young man was the innocent victim of a very cruel hoax.”
While fans and the members of the media might not be satisfied with where Te’o has left it, he won’t necessarily be compelled to answer to them — just to potential employers starting in February.
At the NFL combine, Te’o will have his physical skills and fitness tested, and he will be interviewed by NFL executives and coaches. He has been projected as a potential first-round draft pick. If his involvement in this hoax sets off red flags for teams and it causes him to slip in April’s draft, it could cost him millions of dollars.
Said former Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt: “Between now and 97 days from now when the draft comes, there’ll be a lot of people investigating just what took place.”